Mito daimyō and an iconic drama character

Tokugawa Mitsukuni (徳川 光圀, 1628-1701) was the second lord of the Mito Domain, one of the Tokugawa Gosanke (徳川御三家), the three highest-ranking branches of the Tokugawa clan, located in present-day Ibaraki Prefecture. He was a grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康, 1543-1616), the great unifier of Japan, and responsible for the compilation of the classic Dai Nihonshi (大日本史, lit. "Great History of Japan"). He is popularly known as "Mito Kōmon" (水戸黄門).

Dai Nihonshi

The compilation of the Dai Nihonshi, a comprehensive account of Japanese history from its origin to the fourteenth century, had preoccupied Mitsukuni's attention from 1657 until his death. When finally completed in 1906, it had grown to 396 volumes, borrowing its structure and moralistic aims from Chinese dynastic histories. At Mitsukuni's invitation, 130 Chinese and Japanese scholars participated in the task at his domain's residence in Edo, the Shōkōkan. The most renowned historians involved in the compilation were Sassa Sōjun (佐々宗淳, 1640-1698), Kuriyama Sempō (栗山潜鋒, 1671-1706), Miyake Kanran (三宅観瀾, 1673-1718), and Asaka Tampaku (安積澹泊, 1656-1737). In 1698, one year after the chronicles of the first hundred emperors had been completed, the editorial work was shifted to Mito, where it formed the basis of what was later called the Mito School (水戸学 Mitogaku), a school of Japanese historical and Shinto studies.

Confucian influence

Historians generally see Mitsukuni as an efficient and benevolent ruler who stabilised his administration by reinforcing a band of retainers and by consolidating his hold over the castle town of Mito. He promoted gold mining, paper production, horse breeding, and shipbuilding and sent an expedition to Ezo (modern-day Hokkaidō) to establish a trade. According to the practices of the Chinese Confucian rulers, his agricultural policies included the reduction of the annual rice tax (年貢米 nengu-mai), the establishment of famine-relief granaries as well as encouraging peasants to study herbal medicine, to renounce unorthodox religious practices and to focus of filial piety and virtue.

In 1691, the emperor bestowed upon him the court title of gon-chūnagon (権中納言, provisional middle counsellor). In the same year, he retired to his retreat, the Seizan-sō in Hitachiōta. Around this time, the domain experienced financial difficulties, as the concentration of land in the hands of wealthy merchants had impoverished large parts of the peasantry. Alarmed at what he saw as the corruption of samurai morals, Mitsukuni killed one of the domain's senior councillors with his sword, a drastic appeal to the domain administration for reform.

Although this incident tarnished his reputation as a wise ruler, respect for his generally enlightened rule and integrity (he lived in a modest house outside the castle, worked in his rice paddies, and paid his annual rice tax) prevailed among the populace.

Mito Kōmon in fiction

The popular image of Mitsukuni as the ideal feudal ruler was later reinforced by a mid-19th-century account (水戸黄門漫遊記 Mito Kōmon Man'yūki ) of his fictional travels around the country and by a subsequent version of these tales, assumed to be created by a storyteller from Ōsaka in the 1890s. The legend of Mito Kōmon was further popularised by three movies by the same title (1957, 1960, 1978) and countless other movies, as well as a jidaigeki (時代劇, "period drama" or historical drama) produced by TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) between 1969 and December 2011. Five different actors have played the leading role of Mitsuemon, a retired crêpe merchant from Echigo (present-day Niigata Prefecture), wandering the country with two of his retainers, Sasaki Sukesaburō (助さん, "Suke-san") and Atsumi Kakunoshin (角さん, "Kaku-san") to "right the wrong".


  • Flueckiger, Peter; Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism, Stanford University Press 2010
  • Goto-Jones, Christopher; Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press 2009
  • Harootunian, Harry D.; Things Seen and Unseen: Discourse and Ideology in Tokugawa Nativism, University of Chicago Press 1988
  • Sansom, George; A History of Japan, 1615-1867, Stanford University Press 1963
  • Yamakawa, Kikue; Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life, Stanford University Press 2002
  • Zomber, Michael R.; Shogun Iemitsu: War And Romance In 17th Century Tokugawa Japan, iUniverse 2009

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